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MAJSTER PAVOL'S WOOD- CARVINGS ADORN ALTAR

LEVOČA: Medieval square is a real gem to see

The carpeted green valleys of the Spiš region of eastern Slovakia blend with the undulating hills in a timeless geological dance. History is everywhere. Here, the massive Spiš castle towers over the valley. There, a 13th century church in Žehra presides over a neighborhood of twisting village streets. In the heart of this landmark-rich country is Levoča, the region's crown jewel.
Founded in the first half of the 13th century, Levoča still retains much of its wealthy, cosmopolitan past. Entering the town under the Košicka Gate, stone houses and shops, centuries old and newly restored in shades of soft pastels, line a wide street leading to the main square. There, stately old town facades surround what was once the village green. Beaten oak doors with rusted latches and stone lintels meet the street.



The carpeted green valleys of the Spiš region of eastern Slovakia blend with the undulating hills in a timeless geological dance. History is everywhere. Here, the massive Spiš castle towers over the valley. There, a 13th century church in Žehra presides over a neighborhood of twisting village streets. In the heart of this landmark-rich country is Levoča, the region's crown jewel.

Founded in the first half of the 13th century, Levoča still retains much of its wealthy, cosmopolitan past. Entering the town under the Košicka Gate, stone houses and shops, centuries old and newly restored in shades of soft pastels, line a wide street leading to the main square. There, stately old town facades surround what was once the village green. Beaten oak doors with rusted latches and stone lintels meet the street.

The houses rise three to four stories and culminate in pointy rooves of different colors. Three fine, old buildings, each distinct from the other, fill the plaza: a basilica, the town hall and the 14th century St. James Church. Huge and bland on the outside, this church hides one of the world's most remarkable gothic secrets sculpted by a simple woodcarver known only by his first name.

Majster Pavol's legacy

Levoča's medieval past belongs to Majster Pavol and the uniqueness of his works. Soon after coming to Levoča in 1506, Majster Pavol set up a workshop and chiseled some of the finest Gothic and Renaissance wood sculptures in the world, many of which can be found in the church.

Entering St. James Church through the door once reserved for the common people, the light struggles to pierce through the oblong stained glass windows that look like they have not been cleaned for decades. The tour guide turns on the lights, but the visibility improves little. The few people inside the church are standing in the main aisle, faces pointed skyward in the direction of the front of the church. They are in awe.


Masterpieces. Woodcarvings such as this one of St. John the Almonder made Levočan Majster Pavol famous.
Courtesy of Príroda

Looming above them is Majster Pavol's masterpiece, a gigantic altar that barely squeezes into the archway. At 18.6 meters, the main altar to St. James the Apostle is the tallest gothic altar in the world.

Three figures each over six feet tall - the Madonna, flanked by St. James and St. John, take up the altar's center. Below them is Majster Pavol's radical rendition of the Last Supper, in which only two disciples are shown listening as Jesus announces that he has been betrayed. The scene is powerful but cannot be viewed up close. To do that, venture over to Majster Pavol's former house, located on the square across from the church's main entrance. There, the viewer can inspect copies of the Last Supper scene and other figures from the main altar.

Right next door to St. James Church is Levoča's Town Hall, originally built in the 15th century but destroyed, along with some of the town's most precious documents, by a giant fire in 1550. Today, the town hall houses two floors of historical potpourri that gives one a glimpse into Levoča's rich past.

Like other towns under the Spiš German umbrella in the 15th and 16th centuries, Levoča became an island of prosperity in a sea of Hungarian rule. Sensing that it could reap rewards from its advantageous position along two main trade routes, Levoča forged a deal with its rulers.

The king granted it virtual autonomy and the right to collect taxes from merchants heading from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea or travelling from the eastern edges of the Hungarian empire west toward Vienna. In return, the townsfolk paid royalties to the king.

Both royal and bourgeois pockets were lined, and the town enjoyed an almost two-century run of prosperity.

Outside the church and the town hall, the main square sits like an open invitation for a stroll. Though many of the houses are beautiful, only one rivals the best restoration projects in other cities. That house is the Thurzový Dom, a Renaissance-style domicile of a wealthy 16th century Spiš family. Neo-Renaissance style frescoes from the 18th century fill the facade and are accented with Latin inscriptions.

Pilgrimage capital


Heart. Levoča's plaza is a medieval wonder filled with the 15th century town hall (foreground) and and adorned by the 14th century St. James Church and its Gothic altar.
Courtesy of Príroda

On the first Saturday of every month, thousands of Catholics descend on Levoča to take part in a pilgrimage to Marianská Bazilika on a hill overlooking the town. On any other day, however, the short trek to the little chapel offers the chance to pluck raspberries or blueberries from the bushes or simply a good place to relax.

But even with all this, Levoča remains a simple place, suitable more for a day excursion than a weekend stay. Peter Pekarčik, Levoča's mayor, bemoans its fledgling tourist infrastructure. "There's not even a travel agency here," he said. Old values die hard and change takes time, he conceded. "People here are conservative. They don't know what to make of tourists."

Mária Novotná, one of the town's resident historians, said one past action put Levoča in its present predicament. In the 1950's, she said, the communists stripped Levoča of its administrative reins over the Spiš region and handed them to Spišská Nová Ves. This proud town lost its attention of being the nerve center of the region. "It was the last plague," Novotná said with a rueful laugh.

As the sun settles behind the hills ringing the town, the dim light conceals the decaying insides of the buildings hugging the main square and instead reveals the distinguished exteriors of their proud past. Perhaps in time, these buildings will be restored to their original grandeur, and Levoča will become a complete expression of its medieval past.

Topic: Tourism


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